The Children of Húrin: Tolkien’s Tragic Saga Shows a Darker Side to his Fantasy
Tolkien’s Tragic Saga Shows a Darker Side to his Fantasy
The Children of Húrin
Houghton Mifflin Company
Henry Edward Hardy
The Children of Húrin is a tragedy written by JRR Tolkien. The book chronicles the destruction of the family of the noble Húrin of Dor-lómin, a human counselor and ally of the noble High Elves of Beleriand.
JRR Tolkien is best known as the author of the beloved classics The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. The Hobbit, published in 1937, and the three-volume Lord of the Rings, published in the 1950’s, tell the tales of two notable hobbits, Bilbo and Frodo Baggins, and their adventures. The Lord of the Rings is set against the backdrop of older tales which Tolkien started writing in 1916-1918.
The young Tolkien experienced the horror and madness of war while serving in the Great War. After contracting trench fever following the Battle of the Somme, Tolkien was returned to England for convalescence. It was at this time that he courted and wed his teenage sweetheart Edith Mary Bratt, and began writing the posthumously-published Book of Lost Tales. It is the juxtaposition of the joy Tolkien felt in the fields of flowering hemlock at Roos with Edith and the remembered horrors of the war in which most of his friends had died, which provided the inspiration for The Children of Húrin.
The writing in The Children of Húrin is archaic in style, with the characters declaiming with great intensity. The fall of the House of Húrin begins with a great battle, called the Battle of Unnumbered Tears in which,
…all the hosts of Angband swarmed against them, and they bridged the stream with their dead, and encircled the remnants of Hithlum as a gathering tide about a rock. There, as the Sun westered and the shadows of the Ered Wethrin grew dark, Huor fell pierced with a venomed arrow in the eye, and all the valiant men of Hador were slain about him in a heap, and the Orcs hewed off their heads and piled them as a mound of gold in the sunset.
Last of all Húrin stood alone. Then he cast aside his shield, and seized the axe of an orc-captain and wielded it two-handed, and it is sung that the axe smoked in the black blood of the troll-guard of Gothmog until it withered and each time Húrin slew he cried aloud: ‘Aure entuluva! Day shall come again!‘
But even mighty Húrin fell at the last and was captured alive. Unable to break him, Morgoth placed a curse against Húrin and all his folk and then placed Húrin on a great peak whereby by dark arts Húrin, powerless, beheld what transpired to his family in the world below. Thus the curse of Morgoth begins the destruction of Húrin and his wife, brave Morwen and their beautiful children Túrin and Nienor.
Tolkien was a professor at Merton College, Oxford in English language and literature and was a scholar and translator of Anglo-Saxon texts such as Beowulf and The Battle of Maldon. Tolkien saw the ultimate expression of Anglo-Saxon heroism in the man who goes to certain doom in battle against a vastly superior foe, because honor and duty demand it. The Children of Húrin resembles many tragedies, from Oedipus to Njal’s Saga to the Kalevala, in the depiction of the character of heroic men who strive to overcome fate or the malice of one of the Gods, or Valar, as Tolkien calls his angelic demiurges.
Much of the text of The Children of Húrin has been previously published in the book Unfinished Tales and in the tomes of son Christopher Tolkien’s 12-volume History of Middle-earth. Christopher Tolkien has done a fine job of editing and restoring his father’s unfinished tale of Húrin and his progeny. The American edition is handsomely illustrated by Alan Lee.
The Children of Húrin is the work of a young Tolkien made wise and bitter by the dreadful experiences of war. The Children of Húrin is acrid and tragic, but contains many passages of great vigor and heart-catching beauty. Highly recommended.
A version of this review was previously published in Current and Electric Current.
Copyright © 2007 Henry Edward Hardy
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